Two Years After the Juba Clashes: Has UNMISS’s Protection of Displaced People Improved?

Displaced civilians take refuge at UNMISS base in Tomping, Juba (July 2016) ⓒUN Photo/Beatrice Mategwa

Thijs Van Laer

In July 2016, serious fighting erupted in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, when a peace agreement signed less than a year before broke down. Many citizens were killed, often in deliberate, ethnically motivated attacks, while others sought safety in the vicinity of the premises of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Many more had already found relative safety there after earlier violence and atrocities in 2013. As of June 28, 2018, more than 210,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living under UNMISS protection.

Despite its responsibility to protect those IDPs, in July 2016 peacekeepers abandoned their positions at the IDP site, and more than 20 civilians were killed. In addition, two Chinese peacekeepers died after a grenade exploded near their armored personnel carrier. Despite repeated alerts, UNMISS did not intervene when government security forces forced their way into a nearby hotel and killed one and sexually abused other UN and humanitarian personnel residing there. Much has been written about the woefully inadequate response by the UN peace operation to these attacks, blamed by a UN inquiry on the lack of leadership, inadequate coordination, and poor troop performance. The mission’s military commander was sacked after the inquiry.

Two years later, many residents of one of these IDP sites, also known as protection of civilians (POC) sites, in Juba remember all too well how they were abandoned by the UN troops. While they still appreciate the fact that the UN opened their gates in 2013, new IRRI research shows that they have become more critical about the UN mission’s performance since the 2016 events and since IRRI’s earlier research in late 2015.

We interviewed 32 men and women at Juba and Wau POC sites in May 2018, in addition to 30 in those cities outside of those sites. Many specifically criticized the troops present at the POC site in Juba for fleeing in July 2016 and for their lack of response to security incidents in recent months. Several described how UNMISS troops witnessed recent attacks on civilians in the zone around the POC site and failed to intervene, despite their mandate and the clear warning signs. As one woman living in the POC site in Juba said, “They should stop running away. If not, we can all get killed. Let them respond instead of running.”

In addition, family members of people in government detention (known for its abysmal conditions) accused the peacekeepers of passivity when their loved ones were arrested just outside the UN site, or even of handing them over to the government security. “They say their mandate is to monitor and report. We need protection,” one of the IDPs told us, illustrating the confusion about the mandate characterizing many peace operations. But even in their reporting, these troops may sometimes try to downplay the threats: for example, a UN police officer told IRRI how a report on an incident in January involving shooting by government forces failed to mention the gunshots.

Community leaders in the POC site said they have repeatedly voiced their concerns in meetings with the UN leadership and requested replacing the Chinese troops (the majority at this site) with troops from other countries, seen as more pro-active, such as the new Regional Protection Force, but such calls had not been heeded.

By contrast, residents of the POC site in Wau, a town in the country’s northwest, were a lot more positive about the peacekeepers (we interviewed 15 men and women in the POC site and 15 in Wau town in May 2018). People here, who fled to UNMISS’s protection after ethnically targeted attacks by government soldiers in June 2016, are unanimously positive about the mission. “If they had not been here, I think the government would have killed all of us,” one of them, a young woman, told us. Nobody brought up abuses committed by UNMISS staff, despite recent allegations of sexual abuse by Ghanaian police units in Wau.

Yet two key concerns central to our research on peace operations were again confirmed in Wau: the lack of knowledge about the mission’s mandate and the limited communication between peacekeepers and citizens. Regarding the mandate, many people in the POC site thought it was limited to protection of IDPs, or protection of civilians at best, while the mission has several other tasks, including human rights monitoring, facilitating humanitarian assistance, supporting the defunct 2015 peace deal, etc. As most citizens outside the POC site interviewed by IRRI rarely saw UNMISS in their neighborhoods, they had even more limited ideas about what the mission was mandated to do, and had no opportunity to communicate with them. While in Juba the situation was slightly better in this regard, many of those in the Wau POC site said that they had no reason to talk to peacekeepers, were prevented from doing so by language barriers or felt they were not allowed to talk to military.

The POC sites have been a thorn in the side of the government, which has claimed that they harbor rebels, and it is keen for people to leave the sites. UNMISS has promoted voluntary return. But no inhabitants expressed a willingness to leave the POC sites, citing continuous insecurity. As a woman in Wau told us: “For me, to go back to my rightful home requires peace. The government regards us as enemies, how can I think of going back home when there is no peace?” Most said it was not the humanitarian support that kept them there, an often heard explanation from outsiders, and that they would prefer going back as soon as security allows.

But that is unlikely to be the case soon. On June 27, 2018, a declaration was signed between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar—now commanding the largest opposition armed group—but the ceasefire they agreed on in Khartoum was reportedly violated the same day it came into force. After different rebel groups rejected a new power-sharing proposal, and a constitutional amendment was proposed to keep Kiir in power, prospects for a political settlement in the near future look grim. Attempts to “revitalise” the defunct 2015 peace agreement with a wider group of actors have so far failed due to continued unwillingness by the parties to reach a compromise. At the same time as participating in talks, the government has started an almost invisible offensive against the remaining opposition pockets, which is likely to result in more atrocities and displacement. Violent crime is on the rise in Juba and other towns, and the years of war have damaged mechanisms to deal with local conflicts.

Two years on, while UNMISS still has its hands full protecting IDPs already present at its bases, it has clearly learned some lessons from the 2016 events. Citizens in South Sudan do appreciate such efforts, and UNMISS receives great support in places such as Wau. However, continuous criticism by other IDPs, such as those in Juba, and failure to provide protection outside its gates amid ongoing atrocities, shows the mission still has a long way to go to effectively protect those most affected by the war.